Global Links has been delivering much-needed donated medical supplies and equipment to health care clinics and hospitals for more than 30 years. With its name, people may assume it does that good work only in other countries. But it has been serving Western Pennsylvania residents in need, too, working with local health care and nonprofit organizations to reach them.
That work became even more important and in the forefront during the pandemic when limits placed on travel restricted its overseas work. When government officials lifted those restrictions as COVID-19 cases receded, the nonprofit’s leaders realized the need — especially for home health supplies and equipment — still remained high.
So now, as Global Links’ volunteer ranks and donated items have risen almost to pre-pandemic levels, Executive Director Angela Garcia and her staff are pressing ahead with providing home health care equipment in Pennsylvania. They know firsthand the high cost of home health care equipment and that programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medicaid don’t cover them. Further, co-pays required by Medicare supplements and other health insurance continue to rise. It’s often simply just too expensive, so people do without or ration needed items.
Garcia said this initiative fits with Global Links’ mission to improve health, especially maternal health and primary care in communities with need. According to its website, it collaborates with government officials, health care professionals, community organizations and community leaders to develop projects that support public health goals both internationally and domestically.
Global Links has three major initiatives in its programming: International Medical Aid, a Domestic Aid Program and Medical Recovery Program. The international efforts provide help to medical facilities and communities in Cuba, Bolivia, Honduras and Nicaragua.
Its leaders and staff members have taken great pride in its customized approach to rescuing these important items before they are dumped in landfills.
The Green Tree-based organization is not a drive-up or distribution center. It relies on the help of partner organizations to distribute what it collects. Those include The Blessing Board, with locations in West Mifflin and Shaler; Chosen in Erie; and the Medical Equipment Recycling Program in Farrell and Greenville. MERP is an initiative of the UPMC Horizon Community Health Foundation.
Global Links has a personal care kit initiative with its Community Partners Program, too. The most commonly requested items include toothpaste, toothbrushes, dental floss, soap, shampoo, deodorant and lotion, according to its website. These items are not covered by SNAP benefits (food stamps) or other government assistance programs. Those who need food assistance almost always also need personal care and hygiene items.
A diaper drive Global Links held in June with the Western Pennsylvania Diaper Bank in McKeesport highlighted that. When the staff and volunteers from both nonprofits arrived to set up at 8 a.m. that day at McKeesport Area High School, they found vehicles already lined up around the parking lot and building. The drive started at 10 a.m.
“We ran out [of the diapers],” Garcia said, noting this was her organization’s first project in that city. “A huge success,” with 450 families served in 1½ hours.
“We had translators there to talk to people in four different languages. One man rode up on a bike and bungee corded the diapers to it and rode away. The last half-hour we gave referrals to our partner agencies for families to get diapers. The need is that great.”
Equipment requested often includes walkers, shower benches, rollators and manual wheelchairs. Garcia is especially proud of how its wheelchair program works, with staff assessing the donations before starting repairs. The wheelchair wranglers, as they are called, work much like a vehicle repair shop, she said, and keep meticulous records.
Its Green Tree warehouse is filled with equipment and supplies, organized on shelves in boxes and containers — often reused, in keeping with its environmental goals. A detailed supply system keeps track of what goes in and what leaves.
When it started in 1989, Global Links’ approach was unique, Garcia said. Then large nonprofit aid organizations partnered with health care product companies, which received tax incentives for the donations of their surplus products. Hospitals and health care facilities that are nonprofits are not eligible for tax deductions for donated surplus. Global Links concentrates on working with those clinical facilities as they expand, renovate or downsize and collects the surplus materials. Today its work reaches all of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and upstate New York.
A partner Pittsburgh-based trucking company helps make it all work. “What they do is when its trucks are empty, they bring donated items back to Global Links,” she said. “It makes good use of their time, [and there’s] no extra expense to pick up or deliver items to Pittsburgh, and it cuts down on emissions.”
The staff has implemented a blue bag program its partner health care facilities can use, offering training on how and what can be saved. Some opened boxes and individual packages can be salvaged under specific conditions.
The bags can be loaded onto those trucks or dropped off at the Green Tree warehouse. Volunteers sort through and repack all the items with specific content labels, supervised by staff, then load them onto all those shelves.
Larger equipment is wrapped and packaged carefully. One grouping headed to a Honduras hospital — shrink-wrapped and boxed to protect it on its voyage — was moved carefully to a position close to the loading dock. Garcia said such care is taken because once the shipments reach their destinations, they may have to travel for miles by trucks and boats. One shipment reached its destination by a canoe.
“We focus on rural areas, indigenous communities and people of color,” Garcia said. “They are the people most often ostracized … We look to where we can have the greatest impact.”
A more recent donation source has been colleges and universities. Garcia pointed to stacks of blue dorm mattresses and tablet student desks in the warehouse. The mattresses can be cleaned and disinfected and fit hospital beds. The desks can become lab blood draw chairs.
She is proud — very proud — that the attention to detail, record-keeping, careful packaging and repair work result in “no waste.”
Global Links began its work with suture donations, desperately needed overseas, and that continues to be the most regularly requested item. “They come to us in packets of all sizes and for different uses,” she said. “When hospitals shut down units or change vendors, [the sutures] come in. They all have to be sorted and labeled correctly by usage. We have partnerships around the world for specific sutures for specific surgeries.
“The most common request — sutures for C sections. More women internationally die because of pregnancy-related complications than any other disease,” Garcia said.
Volunteers work in two-hour shifts daily throughout the week, one evening and Saturdays. Company work groups can arrange to come in, as well as people of all ages and abilities. One July afternoon a group of 15 included retired FedEx employees who volunteer weekly, a Chatham student intern, and young women from the Green Tree Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Volunteers as young as 13 can come with a parent or chaperone. Family groups can volunteer over the holidays, too.
At the end of the volunteers’ shift, a staff member tells them an impact story about the nonprofit’s work, and photos of the donations reaching patients and clinics fill many walls. “We want them to understand the mission,” Garcia said.
She’s pleased the mission will continue with another diaper drive in September, thanks to a foundation that reached out to her after the successful event in McKeesport.
Garcia said it will most likely be in the Hilltop neighborhoods of Pittsburgh and the South Side. And she pointed to the need the Western Pennsylvania Diaper Bank has passed on: “We have learned that it used to be 1 in 3 families needed help with diapers. Now it is 1 in 2.”
Individuals can also donate used medical equipment, bringing it either to the warehouse or to drop boxes. Instructions for doing so are on the website.
Volunteer information is available here. Internships are posted each semester.
Correction: Some information has been updated in the original story posted with additional information provided by Global Links.